Rob Caughlan


Recorded: 7/11/12

Here's a surfer with attitude! In this video, Rob Caughlan talks about his epic fight to protect the ocean for marine life - and for surfers. Rob was integral in the fight to force pulp mills in Northern California to stop polluting the ocean. After being threatened by high-powered attorneys, listen to what happened next.

Rob Caughlan’s 30 year career in political science and communications has encompassed many different roles, all involving environmental protection. He has served as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Administration of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and White House Staff for President Carter on solar energy. He’s also edited and produced videos on population issues, solar energy, and political figures. Mr. Caughlan co-founded Friends of the River and was president of Surfrider Foundation, and is a well known speaker on environmental and political topics.

In this video, Mr. Caughlan talks about a David-and-Goliath fight to protect the ocean for marine life and for surfers. He was integral in the fight to force pulp mills in Northern California to stop polluting the waters.

Rob Caughlan: My interest in the environment comes from being a surfer. So I got interested in the environment when I first started getting into the ocean when I was in high school. And so I think that’s where the heart of the environmental consciousness comes from is when you fall in love with some aspect of nature. I helped start Friends of the River which was getting river lovers involved in the environmental movement. And I was the first president of the Surf Rider Foundation, which helped surfers get involved in the environmental movement. And I think that’s why we got a lot of members, is because there’s lots of people that go “oh yeah.” Once we fall in love with nature, then you worry about it when you see a dead dolphin up on the beach or something like that.

Rob Caughlan: We got into this fight–a young attorney named Mark Massara had been surfing up in Humboldt County, up near the Oregon border.  They have a great wave up there, but it was turning black because there was so much pollution in the water. The situation was that Mark thought that the culprits were these two mills.

Rob Caughlan: He said, “I think the Surfrider Foundation should sue them.” We sent the letter off and within a couple of weeks they sent a letter back. They wanted to have their attorney come out and talk with us. And so they had this attorney come out and talk with us. He comes out and he visits me and Mark at Mark’s house. Mark had a little house in Pacifica right near the pier there on the edge of the beach; and it was kind of a funky little house, and surfing posters around. And this guy comes in. He looks around and thinks well, this is going to be easy. So he tried to scare us away. He basically said, Look, we’re big. We’re tough. We’re powerful. We know the law. We wrote the law. We know all the people. You know we’ve got all the money. We’re going to kick your ass, but we can be friendly about it. So that was his pitch and he said, “well, what do you guys want?” I said, “We want clean water.” We got into this fight and it kept getting bigger and bigger and it lasted three years.

Rob Caughlan: At one point Mark said, it sure would be nice to have – be able to talk to somebody who spent more time in court than I have, which was practically none. He was right out of law school. So I said, “Well, let’s go prostrate ourselves at Pete McCloskey’s feet.” Pete McCloskey was a great congressman from San Mateo County. This was in the days where there were moderate Republicans and environmental Republicans. So McCloskey was one of those, and the first day that
McCloskey came to court with us he’s like “Pete McCloskey for the Surfrider Foundation Your Honor,” in his old gravely voice. And you could see the pulp mill lawyers going, “Oh, what’s he doing here?” They didn’t know. And so it just worked out the force was with us that morning, that their whole argument that morning was on the congressional intent of the Clean Water Act. And I would – Chris, the lawyer from the EPA said “this guy’s leading with his chin. McCloskey helped write the Clean Water Act. I’ll bet you that Pete’s going to say something.” And then later on when it was his turn to talk, he said, “No, Your Honor, it was not the congressional intent to let these two companies violate the Clean Water Act 40,000 times over a ten-year period, that was not our intent.” So the judge basically said to the pulp mills “You better settle your case or you’re in deeper trouble than you’re already in.” And the settlement of the case–we signed the final settlement on Mark’s 30th birthday. He turned 30. Shows that you can be a young guy and have a lot of good influence, right? It was the largest clean water action in American history.

Rob Caughlan: We made them put 100 million dollars worth of cleanup technology in their factories, pay 10 million dollars in penalties, build the community an ecology education center, print all their progress reports on recycled paper, and build the surfers solar heated showers. We hammered them. And the media went crazy, because they couldn’t believe that surfers could do anything functional. First of all, one of the most important things it did, it showed me that sometimes the justice system in America can work just the way it’s supposed to. Second thing it shows me is that it’s not good enough to just have environmental laws. We need good environmental laws, but you also need good environmental governors and good environmental presidents to enforce those laws because the law had been there but Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder were not enforcing it. And the third thing it shows me, if surfers can do something good to help make the planet a little bit better, anybody can. So yeah, it was a highlight in my life and I’ve been involved in some other important, enjoyable things. But that was certainly one of them.

Huey Johnson: That’s a great story.

Rob Caughlan: In the environmental movement, you need people out in the streets with their “save the whales” t-shirts on, but you also need people inside the buildings that can negotiate a treaty that would actually save a couple of them. It takes a combination of things to make any progress; and so to me, the results are the important things.